In a gaming landscape where bigger is better, Unpacking is something else entirely. There are no cutscenes, no sob story, no need to pretend your charming protagonist isn’t a multiple murderer. There’s just a lot of boxes. A LOT of boxes.
And it’s your job to empty all those boxes. Doing so is simple, and there’s hardly any rules to where you can put something (at least up to a point). Moving house is surprisingly relaxing when you can quick resume whenever you fancy it.
Here’s the real surprise though: it’s also surprisingly moving. You follow someone through their life from childhood to well into adulthood, with all the twists and turns you might expect from that.
Unpacking won’t be for everybody. More accurately, I think most people would probably quite enjoy it, if you could convince them to get into the spirit of it. It’s an easy game to enjoy. But convincing people of that is the real hurdle. “There’s this game where you unpack a load of moving boxes, and the reward for doing it is unpacking more moving boxes.”
The question, then, is how successful is it at doing what it’s trying to do? The answer is pretty successful, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Bringing Down the House
Unpacking is fairly simple. You click on a box to open it, click on it to take out the next item. You then proceed to repeat until every item has been taken out of a box and packed away. Sometimes you’ll have only a single room to worry about, other times you’ll be moving into someone else’s house and you’ll need to adapt. Other times you’ll have an entire home to tidy away. A single level can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to half an hour, but it flies by. That’s so long as you don’t try and finish it in a single sitting, which is a little tiresome.
As you progress, the houses get bigger and the belongings start to stack up. Things you carry with you over 25 years become like old friends, given pride of place (or stuck under the bed if you’re sick to death of them).
It’d be nice for items to have labels. I spent far too long trying to work out what one of those netted shower thingies was. You’ve never known Demon Souls difficulty until you’ve tried placing a shower thingy on the wall as a piece of modern art ten times in a row.
There are also reports of people not recognising the Gamecube that makes a cameo. Very depressing.
You can get away with putting items just about anywhere. My kitchens in the game were constantly messy and unorganised, but I passed the levels anyway. That makes the odd occasion where it doesn’t allow you to continue even strange. Why can’t I have my characters underwear outside of a drawer? Why can’t I put makeup brushes next to the shower instead of the sink? It makes no sense, but it’s my house.
But apart from these minor problems, Unpacking is excellent, relaxing fun.
Telling a Story
The story is told passively. You begin in 1997, and everything you learn about the stage of life your character is in comes from the clues in the boxes. What items are you unpacking for the office? Which posters are going on the wall? Which pictures belong on the fridge, and which belong hidden away in a cupboard? It’s a genius way of telling a story, especially when it’s done through the medium of moving house. So much of ourselves is reflected in our homes, and so it only makes sense that our homes also tell our story.
There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that the game is too short. It finishes rather abruptly and, although I understand why it ended when it did, for no reason other than it needed an end. It could have easily carried on for another 40 years, but clearly this is a small production and that’s not the story they wanted to tell.
You’re left with a feeling of a story half-told. Which is life. It is always half-told under it’s fully told, at which point there’ll be bigger fish to fry than my thoughts on this game. But more would have been welcome.
And this is where my second complaint about the story comes in. This storytelling is almost too good for one character. When the game was originally explained to me, I presumed you’d be part of a moving company, and that the passive storytelling would exist to tell the tragedies and triumphs of a different stranger each level. You should never judge a game by what it’s not, but the potential never left my mind. I’d love to see the developers tackle something like this in Unpacking 2.
Graphics and Sound
It’s pixel art. Every indie game is pixel art. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it’s hugely popular in the indie scene and it’s not going anywhere. Unpacking is a pretty good example of it though. That’s partly because there’s a lot of nostalgia in there. Seeing references to your favourite games, films and bands never grows old.
The art is high quality and clean, and I enjoyed my time with Unpacking. As I said before, this game is a hard sell. And yet the art feels welcoming. The sound plays into that as well.
This is meant to be a relaxing game and the music does that well. It helps to manipulate the plot a bit too. Sadder music for those difficult moments, joyous music for when life is good, It does its job really well.
Unpacking Review – Conclusion
Unpacking isn’t going to be for everybody, but it deserves a download. That’s definitely true if you’ve got Game Pass and can play it at no extra cost. It’s simple gameplay loop is reassuring and comfortable, even fun and relaxing, and the way the story is told is enjoyable. It’s a little obvious though, and I still feel I’d have liked to see the technique used to tell the stories of multiple lives, instead of just one.
For the sake of a few hours though – between the big November blockbuster games no doubt dropping through your letterbox each day – this is a simple adventure that deserves unpacking to its fullest.